Amnesty International, the human rights charity, recently unveiled a new tool that will allow users to detect government surveillance. The “Detekt” tool, which can be downloaded for free via a bespoke website, detects most well known spyware programs, many of which are used by governments, and issues users with alerts if their system is being spied on. It's the first freely available tool that lets people discover whether their devices are being monitored without their knowledge.
The software was developed by security researcher, Claudio Guarnieri, at Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto, and has been launched in partnership with Amnesty International, Digitale Gesellschaft, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Privacy International. It works by detecting bugs initially designed to monitor Skype conversations, then lets users know when they are being spied on and explains how best to take precautions so that it doesn't happen again. The tool will prove especially helpful in developing countries, where digital surveillance has risen dramatically as internet usage has done likewise. Indeed, the Coalition Against Unlawful Surveillance Exports, of which Amnesty is a member, estimates that the digital surveillance industry, is worth approximately £3.2 billion.
The “Detekt” tool, which can be downloaded for free via a bespoke website, detects most well known spyware programs
Guarnieri says the tool is a response to a growing call for help from activists, who have found themselves being arbitrarily arrested and brutally interrogated on the basis of information illegally taken from them. He said his team started by “Researching countries selling surveillance equipment to other governments,” and found that “A German company sold this technology to the Bahraini authorities and that it was used against protesters during the uprising.” He said “Everything unfolded from there with countries including Morocco, Tunisia, Ethiopia and a bunch of others also using it.” He also (rather worryingly) said that it would be easier to list countries whose governments weren't using spyware, than those that were, adding “If you put a red dot in a map for every country using it, the view is quite shocking.”
Marek Marczynski, head of military, security and police at Amnesty, said the software is “Represents a strike back against governments who are using information obtained through surveillance to arbitrarily detain, illegally arrest and even torture human rights defenders and journalists.” He added that governments are increasingly “Using dangerous and sophisticated technology that allows them to read activists' and journalists' private emails and remotely turn on their computer's camera or microphone to secretly record their activities,” a chilling thought indeed.
Amnesty has admitted the software doesn't detect all surveillance programs
Marczynski calls the methods of these governments a “Cowardly attempt to prevent abuses from being exposed,” and posits Detekt as “ Simple tool that will alert activists to such intrusions so they can take action.” He believes we “Desperately need strong legal regulations to bring the surveillance technology market in line with human rights standards,” and that “The negative consequences and dangers of the uncontrolled use of these powerful technologies are enormous and they need to be controlled.”
It should be worth noting, however, that Amnesty has admitted the software doesn't detect all surveillance programs, and that companies and governments will likely soon update their software in order to circumvent Detekt. Until then, however, anyone working in journalism (myself included) really has no reason not to download it.
Benjamin Hiorns is a freelance writer and struggling musician from Kidderminster in the UK. He doubts any government would care what he keeps on his computer, but isn't taking any chances!